On the prowl for owls? Here’s a guide to local hooters

Living in Balance
By Jenipher Appleton

The term ‘wise owl’ dates back centuries. Owls are often used as symbols for higher education, even being depicted sporting a mortar board. Is the owl really wise, or is this simply how it appears to humans? The owl is the only bird whose eyes are placed adjacent to each other in its face (just like people). All other birds have an eye placed on either side of their heads. The front-facing facial disk feature undoubtedly helps the owl to see better at night. The fact that owls soar on silent wings affords another advantage in the stalking of prey.
In southern Ontario five owl species are most common. The following facts may help you to identify these species either through physical features or by each owl’s distinct call. The source of information is my favourite PhD in Ornithology, Fred J. Alsop III.

Great Horned Owl
With a length of up to 64 cm and a wingspan up to 150 cm, this powerful owl will attack a house cat, skunk or porcupine and other animals sometimes larger than itself. It has large ear tufts and colouring ranges from dark brown to buff. The huge yellow eyes are riveting and his call is a deep Whoo! Whoo-whoo-whoo! Whoo! Whoo! (You awake? Me too!)

Saw-Whet Owl
This tiny owl (just 20 cm long) is named for its call, which sounds like a saw being sharpened, or whetted. Without ear tufts, its distinctive features are: dark bill, white eyebrows, and pale buff to brownish facial disks. The saw-whet hunts at night for small rodents, large insects, birds, and bats.

Barred Owl
The barred owl has very dark eyes, a length of up to 61 cm, no ear tufts and horizontal barring on the upper breast. It is called the “hoot” owl of southern swamps. Its song is eight or more drawn out notes. “Who cooks for you! Who cooks for you aaawwl?” It is often heard in daytime and responds readily to imitations (something our family has experienced often in Algonquin Park). The barred owl feeds on small mammals, frogs, salamanders, lizards, crabs, and crayfish.

Eastern Screech Owl
A small ear-tufted owl, the screech is perhaps the best known owl in eastern North America. It is 20-25 cm long and has a wingspan up to 60 cm. It has a bright rusty brown to gray body and bright yellow eyes (similar to the great horned). Its song is a tremolo whistle descending in pitch. Favourite foods are insects, arachnids, mammals, and amphibians.

Long-Eared Owl
This is the most slender and nocturnal of the owls. It has a length of 30-40 cm and a wingspan of up to 100 cm. The long-eared owl has rusty facial disks and yellow eyes. The back is a mottled brown and the breast has heavy vertical streaks. The ear tufts are long, blackish and close-set. The song is a low “moooooo” or “booooo” at 10-second intervals. Pellets reveal a diet of mice, moles, voles and smaller birds.

If you find yourself actively seeking out any of these owls, you can call yourself an owler.